July 10, 2012

Money talks……and sometimes a bit too much!

Guest post by Stefan Söderfjäll, Ph. D, Ledarskapscentrum

Let's make one thing clear once and for all. Money is a powerful motivator. If what you have been told in life so far has made you think otherwise you can hit that out of your mind immediately. Money is indeed a strong motivator, so powerful that it can actually make us commit the most heinous and immoral acts in pursuit of it. You only have to look at all the scandals in corporate life, such as, to name just one, the Skandia scandal that took place in Sweden the years around the millennium, to understand what the pursuit of mammon can cause.

Or, by all means, document every legal case brought to court in a country during one year and I promise you will find a steady stream of gruesome murders and violent crimes, robbery, burglary, and financial scams, which in one way or another have been performed by people with dollar signs for their eyes. In fact, the mere thought of money triggers the cash register that is located somewhere deep in our brains and stimulates us to commit various less socially desirable actions. It is basically sufficient with a quick glimpse of a bill for it to go running at full speed. If you doubt that this is true, please read on.

In a series of ingenious studies by Kathleen Vohs, Nicole Mead, and Miranda Good, published in the prestigious journal Science, this phenomenon was more than clearly demonstrated (Vohs, Mead, & Goode, 2006). The common denominator in all these studies was to investigate whether, and if so how, the very thought of money affected people's social behaviours. First, the participants in these experiments had to perform some relatively simple tasks, which, among other things, was to compose sentences of a number of mixed words. Half of the participants were given words that formed sentences, which, in some sense, dealt with or were related to money (i.e., "A well-paid job," "Money is good to have"). The other half was presented to words that composed money-neutral sentences (i.e., "A red car", "Phone Call").

The above task was actually a pseudo task (unbeknown to the participants). The true question of interest for the team of researchers was to see how people in the two groups acted in various social situations after the pseudo task was completed. This is a so-called priming task where one is interested to see how thoughts and experiences in one situation unconsciously follow and affect behaviours and attitudes in a subsequent situation.

In these studies, the subsequent situations in which the team of researchers studied the participants' behaviour (unbeknown to the participants) included:

  • Participants were asked for help to enter a number of data sheets to a computer and were measured with regard to how many data sheets they actually entered.
  • Participants were asked for help to understand the task by another participant (who was actually an actor) and were then measured by means of how much time they devoted to instructing the other participant.
  • A person walked by with a stack of paper and pencils and "accidentally" dropped the latter (a total of 27) on the floor. The researchers studied how many pencils the participants helped to pick up.
  • Participants were informed about a box by the door, which was for voluntary donations to the university's student fund. The researchers studied how much money the participants in the trials actually donated.
  • Participants were told that they soon were about to meet one of the other participants and were asked to move two chairs next to each other, so they could sit there and have a talk with the other person. They were then measured by means of how close together they placed the two chairs for the forthcoming meeting.
  • Participants had to fill out a questionnaire in which they were asked to indicate which activities they preferred to perform. They were presented with a number of activities that were either conducted individually or that that were carried out together with other people, and were told to indicate which of these they preferred. The researchers then studied the extent to which participants picked individual or social activities.
  • Participants were told they were about to work on a creative task and that they could choose whether they wanted to do it alone or if they rather wished to cooperate with another person. The measure of interest to the researchers in this situation was whether the participants chose to work individually or in cooperation with another.

Before letting you know the results of these studies, I would like you to consider if you think your own behaviour had differed in these situations depending on whether you had composed sentences with or without a monetary focus in the pseudo task. When I ask people this question the majority usually say that it would make no difference whatsoever. This is not particularly surprising. Such a banal priming task, as the sentence construction task presented above, surely cannot affect one's behaviour that much in the subsequent situations. Or can it?

During the decades psychological research has frequently demonstrated that what people think they will do and what they actually do, in various situations, is more than often not the same. The results in the above studies were no exception. People who were mildly primed with thoughts of money, compared to the neutral control group:

  • Entered half as many data sheets.
  • Helped/instructed the other participant half as long.
  • Picked up an average of just over two fewer pencils from the floor.
  • Donated half as much money to the students fund.
  • Placed seats an average of four inches farther apart.
  • Indicated a preference for individual activities 10 % more frequently.
  • Opted in 80% of cases to work alone, compared to about 30% of the participants in the control group.

In short, you could see that the mere thought of money brought out an individualistic focus where they were less inclined to help, socialize and cooperate with others. How much individual focus can we expect in organizations where much of the content in the communication from managers and leaders is to generate economic profit? There is, of course, nothing wrong, whatsoever, with wanting to fill up the private bank account, but if you as a manager/leader also want employees that help and cooperate with each other, it is probably a good idea to put down the money talk a bit.

Stefan Söderfjäll, Ph. D (at Twitter: @ScienceUCanUse)

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